Winner: Nintendo

Nintendo is the clear winner at this year’s E3 with the introduction of its Wii U console as well as an innovative new touchscreen controller. For years, Nintendo has been blowing Sony and Microsoft out of the water by going after the casual gaming market. The original Wii was a runaway success despite the fact that its low-powered innards only allowed for outmoded SD video and somewhat blocky graphics. The Wii U will change that, offering full 1080p HD video and markedly improved graphics. That alone would make Nintendo a winner, but there’s more.

The show-stopper was a new controller for the Wii U that sports a 6.2-inch touchscreen, a camera and an accelerometer, allowing for immersive gameplay and augmented reality in games. Nintendo did an end-run around releasing a 3D gaming system. Instead of selling hardware that requires an expensive new 3D setup at home, they’ve brought the gameplay right in between your thumbs; you hold the third dimension. There’s more too, as the controller will even be able to play full games if someone wants to Bogart the television. No word on pricing for any of this (or even word on whether the “new controller” will cost an extra arm). All we know is that none of this will show its face until 2012.

The applications for this new controller definitely look compelling. Place it on the floor and it becomes the tee in a golf game, with the Wii-mote acting as your club. Swing at the ball rendered on the touch screen and it hops from your floor into your television. Nintendo even demoed games where you hold the controller up in front of you, while it renders gameplay in an augmented reality environment, as if controlling the game through the screen. On the simpler end of the spectrum, game developers can implement the touchscreen to show game specific controls or even to display the data that normally covers up gameplay with heads-up displays.

The Wii U controller makes for a great demo, but I’m not sure it will actually be a welcome addition. For starters, it’s yet another piece of hardware to add to your pile of Wii-motes, guitars, crossbows and other living room detritus. Worse, it fundamentally changes the focus of the Wii gaming experience. Where once groups gathered around the television, goofy white controllers dangling from their wrists, to dance, play tennis or shoot each other, now each player is encouraged to enter an immersive world between his or her hands. As a singular, first-person experience, perhaps this new paradigm can’t be beat, but the Wii’s core conceit is that it’s more fun with friends and family. The Wii U, obviously, is all about you.

The focus on singular, first-person gaming actually ties into the main reason why Nintendo came out on top this week: they have finally put the spotlight back on hardcore gamers. As wonderful as so many Wii games are, the technical limitations of the original Wii were too straining to build anything on par with what the hardcore gamer demands. Not only did Nintendo tease a sick looking unnamed HD Zelda game, a semi-perennial treat for RPG fans, but they also announced a sweeping arrangement with Electronic Arts, finally bringing their classic franchise games, such as Madden, FIFA and Need for Speed to the Wii in all their modern glory. From the looks of things, gamers may be able to buy only one console, the Wii U, without feeling like they’re missing out on the latest and greatest. That is a downright massive development.

Solid Standing: Microsoft

Microsoft’s XBox team, one of the only truly innovative departments that makes it to market out of Redmond, had a strong showing at this year’s E3, though most of their announcements were iterative, adding fit and finish to their wildly successful line of products. That’s to be expected from a company that launched the Kinect, the most successful consumer electronic of all time, eight months ago.

This year’s presentation was all about XBox Live, Microsoft’s premium social gaming and video streaming service. The dashboard has been cleaned up with a new design that looks to be in line with the Windows Phone 7 and forthcoming Windows 8 “Metro” user interface. Also making an appearance is Bing search integration, which should make finding games and movies and, well, anything easier to find more quickly.

Beacons are a simple way to notify your friends that you’re ready to play a game. Frankly that doesn’t sound like it needs a shiny new name, but there it is. Perhaps the most compelling addition to XBox Live is “Cloud storage” for game saves. Now your saves will be hosted on XBox Live’s servers so you can sign in from anywhere and pick up where you left off. This kind of functionality could get pretty slick down the road if other platforms are allowed to take advantage of it allowing you to play through a game on your XBox, your PC, even your Windows Phone 7 phone . . . someday

Live TV is coming to the XBox as well, yet there are no announcements for providers in the U.S. or Canada right now. They say providers will be announced later this year. Though it is a long way off, this could be the death knell for the cable box in the living room. There is no question that Microsoft wants users to only have one box hooked up to their televisions. On demand media is now de rigueur for gaming consoles; when live TV comes to the console, who is going to want to pay a cable company?

All told, it was a mediocre E3 this year for Microsoft, but by no means a terrible one. They’re making nice iterative improvements to their flagship gaming console. The past two years were spent preparing the world for the Kinect. Now that they’re in so many households, it’s time to make the experience even better. And that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Loser: Sony

If Nintendo is the outright winner at this year’s E3, then Sony is clearly the loser. After a series of embarrassing hacks and security nightmares, it’s tough to imagine that anyone would want to give their personal information let alone their money to Sony’s Playstation Network. They had to come into E3 swinging to restore their tarnished name, but instead they came to play catch-up with the competition by officially unveiling the Playstation Vita.

The Vita looks like the bastard child of a PSP and an iPhone, and that’s a statement Sony would probably take as a compliment. It’s got a 5-inch OLED screen front and rear-facing cameras, as well as a touchscreen up front and a touch-enabled pad on the rear. There are dual analog sticks as well as a bevy of buttons to keep you cranking through the night.

For $249 U.S. you get a Wi-Fi only model, while $299 will get you 3G data access as well. There are currently no details on carriers or pricing for 3G service. It’s clear that Sony has taken a hit from the popularity of gaming on the Apple’s iOS platform (and to a lesser extent, Android) so they’re going after the casual gamers as well the more hardcore mobile set. What doesn’t make any sense, however, is how anyone could justify spending $100 more than they would on a low-end iPhone and pay for wireless data for a device that is basically only a gaming device.

Overlooking that, the rear touchpad does look compelling. It will be interesting to see where developers take that. And of course, graphics wise the Vita looks like it could kick the ass of any phone. The OLED screen is reportedly gorgeous as well. Still, who could judiciously put good money into a device that feels like an afterthought. Where’s the innovation we expect from Sony?

Finally, at last year’s E3 Sony jumped on the 3D bandwagon in a big way. Just like Hollywood, they were banking that consumers would buy enough 3D hardware (read: new televisions) to drive down the price so that even more people would hop on, making 3D gaming something desirable. Only that didn’t happen; adoption of 3D hardware is taking longer than public tolerance for the medium. Sony is here to help with a new Playstation branded 24" 3D monitor they plan to sell for $499. For that price you also get one pair of active shutter glasses, an HDMI cable and the game Resistance 3. Want more? It's $69 for each extra pair of 3D glasses. They’re practically giving them away! Only not really.

Truth be told, it would take something as compelling as giving away 3D hardware to get people to start using it. Even then, the 3D fad is passing and 3D gaming, while an interesting idea, is more nausea-inducing than it is excitement-enhancing. While $500 for a 24" 3D TV is an extremely good deal, it’s a last-ditch effort on Sony’s part, which is exactly what the Vita feels like. Sony hasn’t made the case that anyone should stick with them. The console market is extremely different than it was a decade ago when Sony was king. I don’t know if they got the memo or not.

1 Comments | Add a Comment
Well, I guess everyone's entitled to their opinion, no matter how wrong.Not only was Microsoft the clear loser at this year's E3 (with zero announcements of any import), I would suggest Sony was the winner, with the much anticipated and remarkably attractive successor to the PSP. Nintendo did do well, however adding a controller that looks remarkably like said PSP was not as innovative as this author would make it sound... heck, the Vita allied with a PS3 arguably already does what Nintendo plans to do in future years.Oh, and since when did the MS Kinect become "the most successful consumer electronic of all time"? Please, at least stick to hyperbole that is slightly related to reality.
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